“This War is Not Our War”:
Critiques of War and Authority from a Modern Perspective
“1915: February,” “Poem,” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: V” by Ezra Pound; The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings; and the later, Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick all use their artistic portrayal of war not only to comment upon its being an inhumane and thoroughly absurd institution, but also in order to point towards the larger implications of the war’s existence: That society, the society that their audiences interact with and perpetuate, is responsible for the death, misery, absurdity, and isolation that has been bred. They then charge their audience to respond their situation, not merely the situation which exists inside the constructs of the artwork. In order to do this these three artists have rejected old, classical forms of story-telling, narrative, and artistry in favor of Modernist forms which are more conducive to the new pace and structure of life after the Industrial Revolution.
By raising questions which inevitably reflect on future audiences, as war since WWI has been a continuous state for Americans, these artists have created pieces which will continue to provoke and beguile audiences. This study will focus on three main questions that interact equally between the works of these artists: How artists ought to react to war? What values should society prioritize during times of war and in its wake? Then, perhaps most importantly, how does society go on afterwards?
“This war is not our war,” wrote Ezra Pound in his poem “1915: February.” What he meant was clear and perhaps more provocative to his contemporaries than it would be today. He intended for this poem to be addressed to his fellow writers and artists who were aiding in the media’s glorification of war and battle and likewise attempting to make a career, a profit, and perhaps a legacy out of it. Pound saw WWI as many more would see it afterwards— different from past wars, as corporate interests and technology would allow it to perpetuate itself beyond the realms of glory and heroism. He likens the war to a machine “lumbering before” a “smeared, leather-grieved, leather-coated engineer.” The machine is “ like Grendel bewitched and in chains,” he tells his fellow writers:
But his ill luck will make me no sagas,
Nor will you crack the riddle of his skull,
O you over-educated, over-refined literati!
Nor yet you, store-bred realists,
You multipliers of novels!
Like Pound, Cummings, in his novelThe Enormous Room, makes clear his feelings towards artists who were seeking to make a name off of the war. Indirectly, he does so by focusing his novel, not on the glories, triumphs, and traumatic events of battle, but instead of the absurd bureaucratic structure of the war and how it affects the lives of those on its margins. Directly, he gives the viewer Count Bragard as an example of an artist who was hoping to make his career off of employing his painting skills to the benefit of the war efforts. Count Bragard is set up as one of the very few fellow prisoners of the narrator, in fact he may be the only besides the company snitch, who the reader is led to directly detest. The narrator, who we are told is a painter, and who we assume to be Cummings himself, views the war and his experiences within it as an artist should, at least in the life of the novel—with an ever un-trusting critical eye, with a blasé demeanor, ever-appreciative of unusual beauty, with trust in his fellow-men but none in structure or leadership, and with a dutiful, ever-diligent memory.
Stanley Kubrick, years later, would film a re-telling of WWI, with a similar artistic sensibility:Paths of Glory (1957). A harsh cultural critic and a descendent of the great ironists of European modernism and the avant-garde, Kubrick shows us the story of Colonel Dax and the 701st regiment in the French army during WWI who were given an impossible mission by their general, who then attempted to scapegoat the mission’s failure on his own soldiers, intending to execute one hundred of them. While Kubrick, unlike Pound and Cummings, confronts the details of war head-on, his criticism is no less sharp. In fact, as we shall see in Pound’s “Poem,” Kubrick shows his audience the complete failure of modern warfare to produce or reward any of the qualities which the media and other artists have attempted to glorify and then utilizes the subject matter to make wider criticisms on the nature of power, corruption of authority, and necessity for rebellion.
The question of what values society should prioritize in order to raise itself out of the squalor of war and corruption of moral authority is addressed by all of these artists, but perhaps most potently by Kubrick. Paths of Glory utilizes a character who takes on the role of a savior or hero, but without facility. The traits that he exhibits throughout the film are noble, human, and what one would expect from say a medieval knight or any Hollywood blockbuster war-film hero; however, Colonel Dax, doesn’t save any lives, nor does his marginal success at bringing the corrupt general to justice, bring about anything but further shame to him. At film’s end, his men find some comfort in a simple song, sung by a sobbing, imprisoned German girl. They go back to the front. Many more will die. That’s all the viewer knows. So, how does this answer the question of what values society should prioritize? Hasn’t Kubrick just shown us that opportunism and jaded attitudes win out in the end? Not quite. What Kubrick suggests at the end of the film is that the myth of one heroic action making a difference is false. That unless society as a greater unit begins to denounce those actions which are selfish, dishonorable and contrary to the public’s well-being, heroism and glory will remain absurdities.
In The Enormous Room Cummings makes a slightly different case. Like Kubrick he mocks the opportunists, the indolent officers, and useless sacrifices made by those in positions of lesser power, but the values which Cummings admires and holds up as examples are not of people attempting heroism, but people attempting to free themselves from or who are already living outside of the corrupt society being portrayed. Characteristics such as staunch individualism, appreciation of simple beauty and simple pleasures, primitive wisdom, and above all, a love for freedom are what Cummings extols as society’s greatest gifts and that which should be prioritized above all else.
Pound’s “Poem,” offers no clear answers this question. Like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, it is a direct recollection of life during the battles of WWI. And also like Kubrick, Pound focuses upon its inanities, senseless violence, and the manner in which it inspires a necessity for primitive self-preservation tactics in its combatants. “The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets./Behind the lines, cannon, hidden, lying back miles./Before the line, chaos.” In this world there is no room for values such as heroism, selflessness, or appreciation of beauty. There is only chaos, death, and “paths in the dark” that, in some way, represent life. Pound ends this poem with a statement that vaguely hints at the question of war-time values. His narrator tells us “My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors. Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.”
Pound suggests that during battle minds are unable to think symbolically or beyond the immediate drudgery and trauma—their minds are corridors, where they may only see what is immediately before them. Beyond this, “Nothing suggests itself.” Nothing is as it seems. Nothing can be trusted. “There is nothing to do but keep on.” One cannot make values, think of values, or think clearly of abstract concepts such as society in times of war. Pound claims in this poem that the emergence of glory and high values during times of war is a myth. To Pound this question is entirely invalid.
The result of the death toll and efforts of WWI in the eyes of Pound was “two gross of broken statue” and “a few thousand battered books,” he tells us in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: V.” The best the war could have achieved was saving “an old bitch gone in the teeth…a botched civilization.” How does a new civilization then emerge? What is society left with? While Pound leaves his audience with only questions and facts pointing toward the necessity of a complete readjustment of values and cultural structure, he at least lets them know that the aforementioned statues and books are certainly not to be relied upon. Kubrick offers even less direction perhaps. While he stresses that a greater effort is required to create a nobler society, one man alone may not do it, he gives no further suggestion as to how it may happen. Cummings, with a post-modern flavor, suggests that perhaps one should revel in the absurdity of society and merely love the left-overs, the freaks and outsiders; paint, write of, and otherwise appreciate their beauty. Yet, how does one achieve that freedom? Little in the way of solid answers is provided by these artists.
What is accomplished by Pound, Cummings, and Kubrick; however, is an awakening of the audiences to the fact that all is not well and that merely accepting the fact that “nothing suggests itself” will not do. These artists plead with their audiences to think, read, view more deeply and actively participate in the cognitive process, forcing them to the leave the page, the movie screen, the novel and enter into their world with a new critical eye.